Shelley Cavanaugh’s sinuous lines create the framework for dramatic gemstones
Shelley Cavanaugh might have only recently launched her fine jewelry collection in 2016 and formally showed her designs in August 2017. But this master metalsmith has spent over two decades in the industry working for other designers as a bench jeweler, as well as in small shops doing restorations and repair work. These years provided her with a wealth of information regarding the business of jewelry. It also trained her eye and hand to create an aesthetic that would follow the sinuous lines of serpents, combining them with gemstones imbued with an organic beauty that only Mother Nature can produce. She describes her collection as a minimalistic approach to organic forms, free of extraneous details and embellishments, instead allowing the rich textures of her metalwork to create flowing lines that act as the framework for dramatic gemstones. Shelley simply says, “ I let the lines of the metal and the nature of the gemstones speak for themselves.”
Here we talk to Shelley about her beginnings, her inspiration and the launch of her collection:
What were the first pieces of jewelry you wore and were attracted to?
“As a teen, I wore lots of vintage costume jewelry & ethnic silver. In college, I became entranced by the jewelry of ancient cultures. I had a particular interest in Etruscan and Etruscan Revival.”
Were you creative as a young girl and how so?
“ I started drawing from the time I could hold a crayon and would entertain myself drawing for hours on end. In college, I started out with the intention of receiving a degree in graphic design. That all changed when I took my first metalsmithing class. Playing with fire and hammers and learning how to manipulate metal blew my mind. I quickly changed my major and received my BFA in metalsmithing and jewelry design.”
What was your career before you launched your own collection?
“Upon receiving my degree I moved from Indiana to New York where I worked for several designers for almost two decades. It was a great learning experience. It was my introduction to designing complete collections, not just one-of-a-kind pieces. I also learned so much about production, from making master models to casting & assembly. I moved to Portland, OR approximately eight years ago, working in a trade shop doing mostly restorations and repairs before finally launching my own collection.”
How did you launch your own collection?
“ I was frustrated with myself for never having truly followed and pursued my passion of designing my own line. I had put my dreams on hold for so long while doing work that might have been fulfilling at the very beginning but did not feed my soul. Finally, I started focusing my energy entirely on creating my own designs. I have been steadily building my collection over the past year & a half, while also creating private commissions.
It’s funny to think that I’ve worked in the industry this long, but I am such a ‘newbie’ in terms of getting my work out into the world. Luckily I have made some wonderful contacts through meeting with stores, as well as via social media”
What was the first piece you ever designed?
“The first piece I truly every designed seems like a gazillion years ago in art school. My thesis show was “From the Body for the Body.” It was a series of bones and muscle structures from the human body. And, yes it was very art school pretentious!
The first pieces I designed for the collection were my serpentine hoops and small snake clasp. Snakes in all sizes and in all categories of jewelry run throughout my collection and are part of my aesthetic.”
Please describe your collection and are the snakes a big part of it?
“The gorgeous fluidity of the serpents kept me engaged and wanting to create more pieces. I also love the symbolism: the cycle of life, rebirth, creativity, fertility and enduring love. I am a strong believer in ‘less is more’ –there is lushness in the simplicity of clean, fluid lines and the natural beauty of stones that the earth produces. The less embellishment, the more the pieces pack a punch. I try not to create designs with too much ornamentation. The gems are nuanced enough. I want them to stand on their own. Nature created the art. I just frame it, often with the sinuous lines of my snakes.
Most pieces are one-of-a-kind, hand forged & fabricated. I try to marry certain influences from antiquity with modern minimalism—this can be seen in my pared-down sacred heart earrings as well as the more matte and rustic textures that add a rough-hewn feel to beautiful colored diamonds and sapphires. One client has referred to the collection as Contemporary Etruscan. I like that.”
What are some of your favorite pieces in the collection and why?
“My favorite pieces are my large serpent earrings and my rubellite serpent pendant. The combination of sensual lines and singularly beautiful gemstones just send me!”
What are the materials you use?
“I primarily work in 18k gold. I love rustic rose cut diamonds, sapphires and tourmalines. There is such amazing color range in these stones. I’m also a sucker for stones with rutiles & natural inclusions. I adore the organically produced art and picturesque worlds going on inside them.”
Have you had a piece of jewelry handed down to you that you wear often or never take off and what is it?
“My grandmother’s wedding set was handed down to me. We had a very special relationship and it means the world to me. It is a very modest set, but was well outside of my grandfather’s means at the time. They shared a great love and she was so dear to me. I wore it everyday for years; I don’t wear it as much recently as the vintage design doesn’t pair so well with my own work. But the rings are always in my mind and heart as she will always be.”
How would you recommend to women to wear your jewelry and jewelry in general?
“I say mix it up & layer it on! I love ring & bangle stacks. Usually if I’m wearing really bold earrings I’ll skip a pendant or choose a small version to not compete with one another. Otherwise, I like smaller earrings with a striking pendant. Always pile up the wrists & fingers! And of course, if you can—mix in at least one snake motif!”